BOOKS: Mick's lucky escape

HOMEBUSH BOY: A Memoir by Thomas Keneally, Hodder pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
MEMOIR must surely be one of the most difficult forms to make interesting. Thomas Keneally begins Homebush Boy with the word "Born" - not a good sign. Then the well-fashioned, straightforward prose we have come to expect of one of our best ... my eyelids start to drop. But after a couple of pages, I am fully awake and in Australia, circa 1950, inside the strangely familiar world of a "very strange little bugger".

The strange little bugger was a Catholic of Irish descent called Mick who never doubted that he would become a great poet (or perhaps the first Australian Pope), who sublimated rather than masturbated, and who suffered from "a hunger for grandeur" which Sydney's western suburbs (where the railway line "ran through our senses like a river, dragging memory and compartments full of lovers by our windows") could not slake. Those compartments would also bear Yanks to training camps in the bush, and eventually restore his father to him.

"I can taste the flavour still of that extraordinary, fatherless Tuesday night, the blacked-out city, the special glow of dismal lights within the shuttered carriage, my grief for the warrior's leaving and my triumph in having my mother under my seven-year-old protection ... Later generations would receive this sense of hiatus on the way to adulthood through divorce. My generation got it through the wartime removal of the father."

"Mick", as we know, would later transmogrify into Thomas Keneally - author of more than 20 novels, one of which would win the most prestigious literary prize out there in the real world (England), beyond Homebush where the "hotels closed at six, so that even the drunks went home early". But the book does not concern itself with the successful writer, only with Mick's 16th year - "one reckless, sweet, divinely hectic and subtly hormonal year" - a pivot around which his existence turns. It was the year that Bernadette Curran, sweetheart, muse (and leitmotif) decided, against all expectations, to become a nun. So the world of spirit ("the only important world") wins over flesh and Mick, too, decides to enter the priesthood. Thus does the book end, tantalising us with the question - How did Tom Keneally escape the cloth to become a writer? Will we find out in the next volume?

Gore Vidal defines memoir as "how one remembers one's own life", as distinct from autobiography, which is history, requiring research. Memoir raises the question - who are these past selves and how are they related to us really? How was Mick (the pocket of his school suit ostentatiously distended by the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins; the ginger cow-lick stiffened with some glue-like substance called Fix-a-Flex) father to the man who wrote The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Schindler's Ark? Keneally, I suspect, like his former self, invites us to laugh at his pretensions, but asks us to regard him with tolerant affection.

As did everyone in his childhood, it seems. The book is a paean to them - the people who formed him. The Christian Brothers who taught him; the school chums; the somehow faceless but oh-so-present Frawley and Curran girls with their blue school uniforms and bare arms, and especially his parents, to whom the book is dedicated.

There was Brother Digger Crichton who swore he had seen the Red Baron shot down by Aussies in World War One. Brother Buster Clare who looked like a cop and liked to gamble on what would be set for the state exams - "I tipped twelve questions from the last leaving Cert, mavourneen. So you just learn it the way I tell you, and then perhaps you won't end up shovelling sand for Strathfield Council as you deserve." Brother Basher with his illicit store of whisky in the physics lab. Brother Dinny who tells his charges that "girls aren't interested in human lust - they go along with the desires of males only out of generosity". There were the Campbell's Raiders, a mob of Protestant guerrillas who tried to turn doubting Catholics to their cause. One forgets that before immigration gave white Australians something to define themselves against, the widest social chasm lay between Protestants and Catholics. (Aborigines lay too far beyond the Pale to constitute Otherness.)

Most people reading this book will have to make an imaginative leap back to lost time, but an Australian of my generation will be hauled back willy- nilly. His evocation of suburban life in the Fifties is enough to put a chill down the spine of any escapee. Despite the lightness of touch and the gentle humour, it's a rather sad little book, a book about people making the best of not very much. Bernadette's decision to take the veil is poignant not because her hand would be "unheld for eternity" but because her options were so few. But it is magical too, reminding us that the ordinary is profoundly strange.

"When Chatterton took arsenic in London in 1770," Keneally tells us, "Wordsworth called him 'the Marvellous Boy' ... I too wanted to be a marvellous boy without having to take arsenic." Well, as it turned out, he was.

! Robyn Davidson is the author of 'Tracks'. Her next book, a novel entitled 'Desert Places', will be published in May by Viking.